21/09/2012 14:08 BST | Updated 20/11/2012 05:12 GMT

In Praise of Planners

Town planners, it seems, are the people everyone loves to hate. When was the last time you heard someone spontaneously eulogise their local planning department?

It's time to put in a good word for these oft-maligned bureaucrats. This week I was at the London Assembly, where I'd been asked to give evidence at their inquiry into empty shops.

Sure enough, it was only a matter of minutes before the bombardment began. Planners won't talk to residents or traders. They interfere when they shouldn't, and sit on their hands when they should take action.

They get blamed for the shops that are empty, and blamed for the shops that are occupied. And most of all, they get blamed by central government for standing in the way of development, which would suggest government would rather we didn't have any planning at all much of the time.

A lot of these criticisms have an element of truth to them. But the tone of some of the debate at the London Assembly hearing suggested planners had no business trying to influence what sort of activities should happen where.

Let the market decide, seemed to be the message - after all, business knows best. If that means streets full of payday lenders, fast food outlets and sex shops, that must be what customers are demanding.

The reality is a bit more complex. The transaction between the landlord and the tenant is only partly influenced by what customers might want. It might have a lot more to do with which occupier can offer the highest rent or the most secure covenant. And when the landlord is an absentee managing agent for an absentee property owner who has no interest in the locality other than as a source of income, the humble planning officer may be the most powerful ally local people have.

Planning, when it's done well, gives local residents a voice in what happens where they live - both through their elected representatives and through the opportunity to comment on planning applications. It creates a democratic check in recognition that property owners' and businesses' demands need to be balanced against the wider public interest. And neighbourhood planning offers the prospect of influencing the built environment in ways that are much more locally sensitive than they have sometimes been in the past.

Too often planners are weak, afraid of saying no because of the prospect of long and expensive appeals. Too often they hide behind rules and regulations rather than engaging with the messy and contentious trade-offs that have to be made to enable a place to work. In many cases, too, a lack of time, authority and imagination leaves them reduced to a policing role instead of acting as facilitators and enablers.

So we need active planners and forward-thinking councils that take planning seriously. We need planners who believe in the idea of public service and see themselves as stewards of all that's good in our towns and cities.

We need planners with energy and the courage to be creative, who see their role as getting things done and bringing life and interest into unloved corners. And we need planning that functions better at a very local level, where it can work with the grain of a neighbourhood or high street and respond to unique circumstances and opportunities in each place.

Despite the best efforts of Eric Pickles, there are still imaginative people training to be town planners and going into the planning profession, and many who have still not been beaten down through years of being treated as political cannon fodder.

Yes, they will sometimes get things wrong and if they are effective they will upset vested interests. But if you want to know what life would be like without them, visit a deserted American town centre, a dreary American suburb or a soulless American mall. And then give thanks for the thin grey line that stands between here and there.